EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. The challenge is always there. Our experience tells us that our current reality is not working. It is not achieving the outcomes our deeper values tell us it should. While we know that, in some way or another, we have agreed to the system that we have today, it is hard to see what will fundamentally change it. This is true for our experience of health care, education, work, money, environment–many of the large systems that we live in and that directly influence our lives every day. We therefore live with the questions of how can these systems evolve, how can we accelerate and scale that evolution?
Fortunately, many people are trying to figure this out. And they have come up with many frameworks and processes that seem to work. To find one that works for you, I suggest two guiding principles: SCALE and CRISP. One principle for the what and one for the how.
- SCALE. The SCALE principle shows what the process needs to help you do.
- CRISP. The CRISP principle shows how it needs to do it.
NOW, A LITTLE DETAIL
THE WHAT — What does the process you use to change large systems need to enable you to do? Scale. SCALE stands for strategic clarity to accelerate large-system evolution.
Strategic Clarity — To have strategic clarity is to understand what the system is and how to move it, and how to communicate that understanding.
What is. You need to understand what system you actually have. Approaches to describing the system follow 4 basic steps.
First, they start by defining the system of interest, which is bounded by the dynamics generating the experience you are having.
Second, they then take a macro-systems look to understand how the dynamics of the relevant parts generate the experience. The method guides you to see which experience, behavior over time, parts, and dynamics are relevant.
Third, the approach then takes a micro-systems perspective to understand how each relevant stakeholder in the system makes sense out of the world, from their own perspective.
Fourth, the approach then provides a meso-systems perspective to show how the micro perspectives interact to generate the macro perspective, and how changes in the micro-level perspectives or meso-level interactions can generate a different macro-level behavior.
These four basic steps describe the system you actually have–what is. It might also help you to think of the system as an agreements field, a field of agreements we have consciously chosen and unconsciously accepted that determines our interactions, and the subsequent experiences and outcomes.
Barriers to understanding what is. Exhaustive research over the past 70 years has proven that we humans are strong in knowing what outcomes we want and what we experience, and we are weak in understanding the systems and dynamics that generate those experiences and outcomes. Popularized in the past decade through behavioral economics, cognitive psychology, and the decision sciences, this scientific research shows that people tend to be quite poor processors of the types of complexity required for understanding systems. This research has also found stellar examples of where people are able to overcome these barriers. Three basic barriers to understand how to SCALE and methods for overcoming them include finding a deeper share purpose, seeing each perspective and its contribution, and holding it all together.
Defining a deeper shared purpose–people come together to achieve a deeper purpose that they cannot achieve on their own. While many say they have a shared purpose, they do not. The approach should clarify what this is for the group, usually through inquiry, asking people why they care about the experiences and outcomes in the first place.
Seeing each perspective–most people think two things. (1) They know what everyone else is thinking, or should be thinking, about any given topic, and (2) nobody else understands the richness of what they are thinking. And, if I don’t know what I think myself, until I ask myself, until I think about it, how can anyone else know what I think? Since most people do this, we all have mistaken pictures in our heads of other people’s realities. The amazing technological breakthrough to crush this ubiquitous phenomenon? The question. Ask. Inquiry-based approaches ask each perspective to describe their reality and then provide some form for validating it–confirming that the picture describes their reality, as they perceive it.
Holding it all together–most people are not able to hold more than a couple of moving thoughts in their head at a time. Many graphically oriented processes, as described by the Strategic Clarity steps above, support people in building up a systemic understanding piece by piece, putting all of the pieces together graphically, so that they can all be held in the same space together.
Strategic decision making. Once you overcome the barriers to strategic clarity, you have an understanding of what the system is. The approach now guides you to decide (1) where to support what exists, and (2) where to start what does not exist. Most of the existing parts of the system need to continue doing what they are doing–they are the basic infrastructure of the whole system–and some new things need to start, to shift the behavior of the whole system. Support for on-going activities and initiation of new activities both require a process for all of the relevant stakeholders to decide how they will take on their respective roles.
Accelerating large-system evolution. With this strategic clarity, the approaches now focus on how to accelerate the evolution of the large system. Leading approaches draw from rigorous methodologies for collaborative tangibilization.
Collaboration. To achieve the outcomes and experiences we all want, the approach is designed to unite us in going through a process to see what is, overcome the barriers, and achieve what we want for each of us and the whole. Supported by the technical rigor of the strategic clarity steps described above, people are able to ask of each other, in these approaches, what do we know? This is where human experience, intuition, and reflection excel. Collaborative approaches interweave processes for accessing the individual and collective wisdom and the knowledge gained from the strategic clarity synthesis.
Tangibilization. To tangibilize is to make tangible, to see a possibility, to see a pathway to manifest that possibility, to see an outcome along that pathway, and to adjust once one has witnessed what tangibilizes in the process. This is evolution–learning along the way. It is about how to see what we want, a pathway to that outcome, while learning and adjusting as we evolve towards that outcome. Tangibilization approaches build in evolutionary learning into the process, witnessing at each step along the way, what is being seen in possibilities, pathways, and outcomes, evolving as those in the system learn. This is what we thought might happen, this is how we chose to test it, and this is what we learned, so now we will adjust what we think might happen. Over and over again, by design.
The approach you take on should guide you to greater (1) strategic clarity and (2) accelerating large-system evolution. For an example of a strategic systems-decision synthesis process my colleagues and I have developed in over a hundred change efforts over the past two dozen years, see Strategic Clarity 2.0.
THE HOW — How do the framework and process help you get SCALE? CRISP stands for comprehensive, rigorous, integrative, simple, and purposeful. As I did elsewhere, here I present the five CRISP criteria in a slightly different order.
Purposeful — The purposeful criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be clear why we are doing this process–the organizing essence of what we are trying to realize together. This is also known as the essential property of the system–the reason for which it exists, for which it self-organizes.
Comprehensive — The comprehensive criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process provide a clear understanding of the boundaries of what is included as relevant and what is not included.
Integrative — The integrative criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process make explicit the relationships among the different dimensions, perspectives, elements, and processes.
Rigorous — The rigorous criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be observable in reality, and reproducible.
Simple — The simple criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be simple enough to be understood. This means that it must align with the rich complexity the human being is capable of understanding, not under or overwhelming them by dumbing down, oversimplifying, or overcomplicating the strategic process.
The CRISP criteria assess the degree to which a strategic framework and process support you, the strategist, in understanding what the system intends to achieve and how it works.
As you face daunting challenges, the SCALE and CRISP principles can guide your search for practitioners who provide large-scale-change frameworks and processes that can work with you to achieve the experiences and outcomes you believe are possible.